Where did all this Ninja business come from?
The Ninja Gaiden series has always held a soft spot in my heart. I think it was 1988 or 89 when I stumbled on to the original arcade cabinet in a local movie theater, dubbed “The Shadow Warrior,” the cabinet I played was very obviously a Japanese cabinet where no one had bothered swapping languages. If I’m honest, I think that might have added to the mystique of it all. Hardcore 2d side scrolling at its finest, terrific music and a burgeoning idea that “every enemy must be addressed separately,” rather than the “I shoot, kick or stab them all in the very same way,” it changed the way I look at 2d platformers going forward. Ninja Gaiden was about navigating the environment, dealing with scenery (in a much more useful way than say, Double Dragon), and then addressing the various and endless Hockey-mask-donning enemies was engaging, gratifying and as hard as the proverbial coffin nail. In short, the Ninja Gaiden Arcade game set a new tone and precedent for what I considered to be “the ultimate beat-em-up.” The game over screen, with the whirring saw blade creeping closer and closer to your chest as the “insert coin now,” counter fell to zero was enough to entangle my 12-year-old brain in coats of blood and uber-violent ecstasy.
So, it was with great anticipation that I picked up the NES copy and hoped that the experience could be reproduced on my Livingroom TV. My mom surprised me and had it for me after school one day, and to say I was elated is as conservative as calling Mitt Romney, “a little Mormon.” That anticipation and elation quickly turned to trepidation when I flipped over the box to find screen-shots that in no way married up with the arcade game I’d grown to love. What’ was this madness? No street signs to exercise my inner need to Gym-Kata, no hockey mask wearing automatons? Just some weird little blue man with a sword and a curious looking cartoon cut scene. You’d be forgiven if you were similarly confused, Ninja Gaiden’s start is confusing: You see Ninja Gaiden(s) both, for the arcade and the NES, followed the exploits of Ryu Hayabusa, the Ninja Gaiden (which is confusing in and of itself because you might think offhand, “Ryu and Ken,” where I’m going to tell you to forget about that and think “Ryu from the Dead or Alive,” series), the issue here is – that games share little other than a main character. So, was I right to be disappointed that the arcade version I’d been yearning to play in the comfort of my home? Luckily no, this is one of the joyous times that life took pleasure in proving me wrong and rubbing my nose in it like a naughty puppy.
So, what makes it so special?
It was the opening cut scene that it got me: Complete with a crazy ninja mid-air sword clanging duel, fully realized animated characters and an engaging story (right from the get-go) – I was absolutely mesmerized. Once the game started, I quickly realized, “this isn’t the Ninja Gaiden from the arcade…this was much better. I was enthralled– the insane challenge, the boss-fights, some of them even having their own pre-and post-cut scenes, the combat, the weapon selection, the furiously paced action fest from start to finish – I was hooked on Ninja Gaiden for the second time in my life. The love affair that would take me from the late eighties, with the original release and then Dark Sword of Chaos (NG2), through the early-90’s with the final release of Ninja Gaiden III: Ancient Ship of Doom. These games defined platforming for me – they were the standard by which I’d judge every other 2d beat-em-up or side-scroller – Ninja Gaiden was my jam.
As you may be gathering, there’s a lot of nostalgic value in the Nintendo Ninja Gaiden games, at least for me. The opening cinematic music still takes me back to my harrowing first look at two ninja’s dueling on a stormy night on windswept grass lands. The cinematics bring back the pure joy of looking at a video game that took steps towards cartoon-like story telling (sure, maybe not as much as something like Dragon’s Lair…but I don’t think anyone whom played Dragon’s Lair would tell you that game holds up particularly well 30 years later either). The music was amazing, the gameplay was tight and responsive, the levels never felt too long and the boss fights were always rewarding pay-offs. But these aren’t the reason that Ninja Gaiden sticks out in my mind…Ninja Gaiden for the NES represented, at least to me, the first significant challenge in video games. Sure, there were plenty of games that required you to take multiple turns to figure out how to best approach a challenge – but Ninja Gaiden differed, because even learning patterns, understanding enemy placement and potential outcomes weren’t the “keys to success.” To succeed at Ninja Gaiden required skill. To elaborate….to succeed at Ninja Gaiden required “Mad-Ninja-Gaiden-Skills!”
Ninja Gaiden required the understanding of every possible move you could make, and then very quickly deducing which of those options had the highest likelihood for success. That’s saying a lot for a game that gives you four choices: Stand Still, move in a direction, jump or duck and then of course…die. In a lot of ways, it’s like playing chess, with a stop watch, and someone’s bird defecating in your eye sockets while you try and make your move. That may sound punishing and cruel, but that’s because it’s punishing and cruel.
To say I was in love with Ninja Gaiden, really undersells it – I’m still in love with it and because it forced me to reconsider how I played games. I think it also might have been the first time I uttered the words, “man I suck at this…. I’d better get good.” Sure, there were other games that presented challenge, pretty graphics, a great soundtrack or amazing gameplay – but those things had always been treated like spokes on a wheel – “have enough of some of them, and the others won’t matter enough.” But Ninja Gaiden succeeds at all 5 simultaneously, erstwhile kicking you straight in the box every chance it gets.
You’ll notice I’m talking about “the Ninja Gaiden,” without going too much into: “Part 1 did this, but part 2 added this mechanic,” I’m doing so intentionally because it’s not necessary to pull the games apart and tell different stories. Sure, some had stages that moved from right to left where others stayed left to right, most of the games had a sense of verticality in the levels, but not all. There was an extra weapon or two that I really liked in one game over another – but at the end of the day – you could string all the levels of all the games into one game and the biggest difference would be in what you could do (weapon/move set-wise) from one to the other, but the core game mechanics and storytelling levers stay the same. That’s not a bad thing, but I think I’d be remiss if I described the Nintendo Ninja Gaiden games as evolutionary. If I did, those increments would be measured in millimeters compared to the miles that something like “Super Mario” has seen, even if just looking at the NES versions of Mario games. So, iterative? That’s a big fat yes.
A Story? What could possibly go wrong?
From a story telling perspective, the NES Ninja Gaiden games all have narratives…bat shit crazy narratives, that challenged even my 12-year old brain with their plausibility. So, lots of spoilers ahead, for those fickle enough to worry, avert thine eyes if you want to experience the batshittery first hand!
The first game has some lavender-colored weirdo with bug antennae and a thick woven shawl trying to get a hold of two statues so he can resurrect the omega zygote which somehow can destroy the world (which I find remarkably unbelievable as a “goal.”) Flying purple, antennae-sporting shawl man, also known as “The Jaquio,” (because what supervillain shouldn’t refer to himself in the third person – especially when your name is pronounced JACK-WEE-HO) has (spoilers) kidnapped your father and is holding him hostage with a statue with a clown nose. In the second game, it’s a world of betrayal amongst the baddies – there’s a magic dark sword called, “The Dark Sword of Chaos,” since originality wasn’t a thing when writing video game plots. The main bad guy is named Ashtar, who looks like Super-Shredder and was apparently the brawn behind “The Jaquio,” and after hearing of his failure, to end the world, says “forget murdering the world, let’s just conquer it with this sword with the trite name.” There’s a woman who is a turn-coat CIA agent in both games, named Irene Lew, and I crack up every time I think about every Japanese developer trying to pronounce her name in development meetings. Irene – she’s key to everything by the way; Love interest of the Ninja Gaiden tracks down secret armies and big bads trying to conquer and burn the world, also somehow her blood is key to empowering the name challenged evil sword of bad. Then the Jaquio shows back up and somehow, he’s really been behind Ashtar, who was behind the Jaquio and then when I think more about it my eyes and ears start to bleed. Jaquio turns into a wall – there’s a demon…and then evil’s defeated? And that’s just the first two games – the third one is about a space ship….and It’s bizarrely both a prequel and a sequel as the game is supposed to take place in the time between Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden II for exactly zero reasons. It’s just as silly as the other two games, there’s more CIA, a giant stone castle which is really an interdimensional war ship – there’s baddies called “bio-noids,” which are robots, or mutants or mutant robots…one can’t be sure. Also, there’s a man named Clancy, he is a good guy and then a bad guy and then a bio-noid (which is no kind of guy at all) and then he becomes Super-Clancy…It is the literal definition of “crazy” but it doesn’t really matter because the story is just there to get you from cut scene to level (or Acts) to boss and then back to cut scene.
Those cut scenes by the way, are amazing – nothing by today’s standards of course (where real time 4k/60fps anime is pumped directly into your eye sockets between matches of Goku and Vegeta fighting it out over whom gets to be pitcher or catcher), but my god – my younger self could barely contain the glee of a couple of well animated, hand drawn frames and some subtitles to bring my favorite cast to life – these didn’t age particularly well, so don’t go looking for much other than nostalgic value if you choose to give them a whirl again.
Action and Traction:
So how about that gameplay then? It’s phenomenal and holds up remarkably well. Let me remind you, circa 1988, most games were about running from left to right shooting things. I won’t call Ninja Gaiden ground-breaking – but there were some real improvements over something, like say, Contra. The concept of getting to the end of a level is roughly the same, but how you travers that level has a completely new feel. You see, being a Ninja…Gaiden, Ryu has the ability to cling to walls, and then if the opportunity is there, jump off that wall and either: Jump higher on the same wall, Jump to an opposite parallel wall (giving you some much needed altitude improvement by function that you always jump “up,” or with some careful finesse…you can even jump and then fall and catch yourself on a lower portion of the same wall – this mechanic adds something to the game mix that we really hadn’t seen before, the concept of verticality and that verticality making a difference in how you play the game. Sure – games had pulled off platforms and platforming jump puzzles before, but Ninja Gaiden made changing vertical heights “climbing,” and very rarely with a ladder. So that in the mix, your character is armed with a sword, the ability to run right, left, jump in any direction, and pick up power-up/weapons that, with the correct amount of ammo, add another tool of destruction to your arsenal. The “ammo” comes in the form of little mana-pots (they have some silly ninja names…they’re mana pots) that add up in a numeric meter, each weapon has a specific numeral “cost” which runs down that meter. Think Castlevania with mana-pots instead of hearts. Those “weapons” vary from a single straight throwing star to a boomerang- like large orange throwing star, fire-balls that shoot up and down at a 45-degree angle, you can (in later games) even pick up “clones” of yourself that follow-behind you two or three character lengths that mimic your exact movements.
The core gameplay is built around navigating levels by using the ground, platforms, hanging from walls and ceilings to get to a boss fight. In between you and that boss fight (which is always in a boss fight room by the way), there are enemies (that range from ninjas, bikers, birds, snakes, sometimes oddly phallic non-descript animals) and pits of death. I brought up Castlevania to liken to the weapon system, and here’s one more area that we must discuss if we’re going to discuss Ninja Gaiden; Ninja Gaiden shares the “I got hit, I get knocked back,” mechanic of the early Castlevania games. That may not sound bad, until you hit the temple level in the first game and then realize that whole essays, term papers, one dissertation (that was later universally discredited) have been written about this singular mechanic being the bane of anyone who’s ever tried to beat the Ninja Gaiden games (as the mechanic persists through games having released relatively recently).
It sounds silly and pompous, but it’s absolutely accurate to describe the magnetism between the three constants of Ninja Gaiden games “Eagles, Bottomless pits and Ninjas,” as a law rather than just some random act of audacious cruelty. To distill it down further, this law states that: If there is a bottomless pit, there will be an eagle, that eagle will find a way to hit the ninja and knock it back into said bottomless pit. Makes the game sound impossible, right? Hey, I don’t make the rules, I just play by them, and then spend my off hours climbing trees and murdering baby birds in the shell. There are parts of these games that are super challenging and rewarding, there are some that will make falter in the belief that there is a benevolent god whom loves you.
Is it worth your time?
Absolutely. Beating the original Ninja Gaiden is a badge of honor. One can wear that into any discussion about modern gaming and gain respect of players of even the most hardened franchise. I put it up there with my platinum for Bloodborne, beating Cuphead, quitting the World of Warcraft. It’s seriously difficult, and sometimes unfair, but the Ninja Gaiden games brought real, raw challenge to a generation of gamers that needed it. Super Mario Brothers wasn’t hard…it was complex, MegaMan was amazing, but most of its challenge came from unfair or uneven boss design (fixed, thankfully and mercifully, in later games) – but mastering Ninja Gaiden (and its contemporary games) is more like an art. True enough, some of that art will require sacrifice (your hair greying, arthritis throbbing, broken controllers, etc.) – but at the end of the day, it’s a game that you can be proud that you beat, and it’s a fun and challenging journey to do so.